Opinion: Want to Convince Me that a Tiguan R Isn’t a Bastardization, VW? Prove it on Track

When I was younger I had a friend whose dad was something of a low-key hot rodder. Blessed with the type of income that only the baby boom could have provided for, he also had a great big cabin cruiser. Naturally, he wanted it to make more power, but when he asked his marine mechanic to put bigger motors on it, the guy told him that he could but that it would be a waste of money.

You see, a cabin cruiser is meant to do just that: cruise. So its hull isn’t shaped in such a way as to allow for high speeds. You can throw more power at the problem, but a given boat can only move through the water at a given speed.

That’s kind of how I feel about so-called performance SUVs. I know that a Tiguan R could make lots of power, but isn’t there an inherent limit to the speeds it can achieve? Aren’t SUVs the automotive equivalent of a cabin cruiser, more designed to fit people and things than to go quickly? Volkswagen seems not to think so. It thinks that SUVs can also be performance vehicles. So here’s what I say to them: Prove it.

When you think about it, SUVs are kind of filling the role of old school, full size sedans in the modern automotive landscape. You don’t need to look much farther than “The Graduate” to see that. In that film, there’s a scene in which you get a really good idea of the size difference between a foreign sports car and the average American sedan. Honestly? It’s not that different than the size gulf between a modern sports car and your average SUV.

That kind of makes sense. Americans sedans were always about being huge and comfortable. The SUV-as-on-road vehicle is just a refinement of that concept. And by that logic, the performance SUV is the modern muscle car.

Both are among the largest vehicles on the road, both appeal to affluent families, both are defined by the liberal application of horsepower coming from big engines (made possible by the size of the vehicles), and both even come at a time when the energy supply is plentiful, but uneasy.

Where the comparison falls apart, though, is that the sale of muscle cars was predicated on motorsport. The big three were constantly at the races in the ‘60s. Drag strips, NASCAR tracks, and sports car racing all obsessed carmakers and featured huge sedans.

We now think of muscle cars as big, luxurious, mechanically crude, soft-riding vehicles that weren’t particularly well-suited to cornering. And yet, they were constantly on track. Why, then, aren’t the big, luxurious, mechanically crude, soft-riding vehicles of today not racing?

Sure, it may seem like an SUV has no place on a circuit next to an Golf GTI TCR, but why not? Automakers have already proven that SUVs don’t need to be subject to the same hull-speed limits as cabin cruisers. The liberal application of horsepower allows them to reach hundreds of miles per hour without too much trouble (see Cayenne)

As for the weight of the vehicle, I’ll remind you that we live in an era in which every single car on the market is as heavy and secure as a bank vault. Even so-called hypercars regularly tip the scales at more than 3,000 lbs. But these cars aren’t careening off the road whenever they try to enter a corner. In fact, corner speeds seem only to increase.

One of the many functions of motorsport has always been to back an automaker’s bold claims. Calling an SUV sporty, to anyone who knows anything about motorsports, seems like a bold claim. So why don’t automakers feel the need to back their bold statements up on track?

Ultimately, this is what I’d like to see: A Tiguan R racing around a track like the Golf it’s based on. Wouldn’t that make TCR a little more entertaining? Don’t you think automakers would be less likely to rush into EV racing if they thought they’d be able to sell some highly profitable SUVs at the end of each race?

Better yet, imagine if VW had the only SUV in TCR (or whatever racing series, it doesn’t really matter). Imagine if it won. Volkswagen already makes a habit of making big cars go faster than they ought to, they just need focus on actually applying that to a racing program. And imagine the ad copy that you could get from beating a Civic with a Tiguan.

And it wouldn’t necessarily have to win, either. Remember when Volvo raced a wagon in BTCC? Do you remember any other fact about BTCC? Putting an unusual car in a touring car race makes a splash and people pay attention and that’s kind of the point of racing if you’re an automaker.

No offense to the enthusiasts in the crowd, but you’re a known quantity. Advertising to you is preaching to the choir. Be honest, the result of the next TCR race between an GTI TCR and the equivalent Civic will have little to no impact on any coming buying decisions you make. You’ve already decided which you prefer and one season of racing won’t change that. The SUV crowd, though, is so big nowadays that a number of them will naturally be undecided. A number of them can actually be swayed by the results of, say, a race.

And sure, SUVs may be a little unsteady on track, but aren’t you more interested in a racing series that involves a little uncertainty than one that doesn’t? Better yet, racing engineers will actually have to do some engineering that could eventually become relevant to you.

Racing series are increasingly forced to make artificial design rules that feel irrelevant to me (who cares if, say, a DTM car makes more or less downforce, Audi won’t sell me that spoiler) to encourage competition. They have to make up these rules because we’ve been making small cars go fast for so long that the only advantages available are ludicrously esoteric and ridiculously expensive.

Trying to make a brick fly through the air like an arrow (or an SUV cut through the air like a race car) is a natural limitation that actually has some off-track applications. Making a heavy vehicle behave like a light one may actually lead to the type of ingenuity that makes racing series inherently watchable. The races are actually proving something, and that gives them stakes, and stakes make every sport better.

Racing an SUV off-road at Dakar is impressive, but what does it prove? We all know SUVs are good off-road. We’ve known that a high ride height and floaty suspension are good in the dirt for more than half a century. That’s why the Jeep hasn’t really had to change in that time.

The 24 Hours of Le Mans is such a lasting spectacle because running a car ragged for 24 hours is still a huge challenge; Top Fuel drag racing still grips a portion of the population because the cars play at the limit of what known materials can handle, tearing through the atmosphere at sci-fi speeds; VW’s Pikes Peak run challenged our conceptions of EV range and found a balance that rested on a knife’s edge.

You know what else sounds like a fascinating, inherently challenging thing to do? Make a cabin cruise overcome its hydrodynamic hangups and achieve speeds normally reserved speed-boats. Bring me more SUV racing. Show me I’m wrong to think that the very notion of making an R SUV is dumb. Prove it to me on Sunday and I’ll show up to the dealership on Monday.